OWENSBORO - Anne Northup is no stranger to fiercely competitive, tough-talking campaigns that make even the most seasoned politicos sweat.
She's just not used to running them against a fellow Republican.
Still, Northup has hardly shied away from delivering often harsh variations of the message that "Gov. Ernie Fletcher can't win" as she's criss-crossed the state over the last six weeks.
That's made some Republicans cringe, but has prompted others to abandon the man that they helped elect in 2003 as the first GOP governor in 32 years.
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"I think people are looking for someone new," said Kim Robarts, a Shelbyville Republican, who said last week at a GOP dinner that she was leaning toward supporting Northup even though she wore a Fletcher sticker.
Northup now regularly describes the governor's record with references to pardons, indictments and the governor invoking his 5th Amendment right not to testify to the grand jury that investigated allegations of improper state hirings. And she often reminds GOP audiences that all of that came after Fletcher promised in 2003 to "clean up the mess."
"They're having trouble with the truth, and that's what got them in this position to start with," Northup said at a recent stop in Owensboro to announce that Lt. Gov. Steve Pence was endorsing her.
Despite Fletcher's powers of incumbency, it has been Northup's no-holds-barred approach that so far has defined the three-candidate Republican primary race for governor.
Fletcher has responded to Northup's forceful message by largely shrugging it off.
"I think we've kept it on a very positive note," he said after an event last weekend in Tompkinsville.
"I'm not going to talk about Anne's tone."
And Paducah construction company owner Billy Harper, the third candidate in the race, has highlighted his image as an outsider businessman.
If the race continues to heat up between the other two "politicians," he said, it's a "real possibility" that he could sneak up on both of them.
Northup, meanwhile, continues to add to her reputation as a fearless and tireless campaigner -- one who survived several expensive, white-knuckle congressional races against Democrats in Louisville, where registered Republicans are a minority.
She lost her bid for a sixth term in Congress last fall.
While those campaigns were tough, she confessed that this one -- her first Republican primary in her 20-year political career -- has been "very uncomfortable."
"It's a very hard-to-deliver message because all of us wish that this isn't what we were saying," she said.
"There's nothing that would make everyone happier than if we could all be cheering on somebody that we were proud of, that honored his promises. ... Instead it hasn't happened."
Learning the details
Northup also said she's still coming to grips with -- and with some specifics, even still learning about -- the circumstances surrounding Fletcher's handling of the state personnel investigation.
After all, Northup was in Washington while much of the hiring investigation was developing between May 2005 and August 2006.
"All of this, in some ways, is completely new for me," she said. "I saw it from afar. I cringed."
On her campaign swing across the state last week, she detailed to Pence, the lieutenant governor, and a reporter how her views of Fletcher evolved.
It was the news of Fletcher's pardons on Aug. 29, 2005, delivered to her at the time by her then-chief of staff Terry Carmack, that first rang serious alarm bells, she said.
Fletcher issued broad amnesty that day to all administration officials for any improper hires they may have made.
"I will say I immediately knew that if they were pardoning everyone in this investigation that there was something that had to be hidden," she said.
"You couldn't come to any other conclusion."
Fletcher has called such assertions "fantasies." "My opponent may want to drag this campaign through the mud, but I'm not doing that," Fletcher told reporters on Wednesday.
Fletcher has no one to blame but himself, Northup said.
"The way the governor handled it was more offensive to Kentucky Republicans than what happened," she said.
"He had everybody's support when he said, 'We're going to look at this ... We're going to seek the truth and not try to hide it.'
"And then just the opposite happened," she added.
Many Republicans who have become frustrated and disenchanted with Fletcher for different reasons have responded so far to Northup's message.
Former Republican state Rep. Joe Bowen of Owensboro, for instance, said he planned to sit out the primary because he said he was still smarting from his election loss last fall and for what he perceived to be a lack of support from the administration.
Bowen, after all, was one of a handful of lawmakers to vote for Fletcher's proposals regarding organized labor that were vehemently opposed by unions.
"I did feel like I was left," Bowen said. "That was their initiative. They could have made more of an issue of it and said, 'You know what, Joe Bowen's doing the right thing here.'"
What did he get instead?
"Well, I got a community college advance technology center vetoed and some other things that at the end of the day hurt," he said.
"They really hurt."
Bowen lost his re-election bid last fall by 408 votes. Northup and her running mate, Republican state House floor leader Jeff Hoover, then spent the last few weeks courting Bowen.
And on Monday at the campaign stop in Owensboro, Bowen introduced Northup to the crowd and offered his endorsement.
But in other settings -- such as county GOP Lincoln Day Dinners, which have drawn throngs of adamant Fletcher supporters recently -- Northup's strong words have been a turnoff.
At the Feb. 23 Shelby County dinner, several Republicans wearing Fletcher campaign stickers at a back table frowned and whispered disapprovingly as the intensity of Northup's voice increased and she wagged her finger to make a point.
In Monroe County a day later, the area's former GOP chairman Roger Myatt, who says he's supporting Fletcher, fretted that the tone of the primary had taken a wrong turn.
It "gives me some concern," Myatt said. "This is early in the primary and there's lots of rivalry already."
Back to issues
Some would-be supporters or undecided Republicans have wondered aloud whether the GOP primary, and Northup specifically, would supplement her pointed political arguments with offerings of ideas and hope.
At her announcement of Pence's endorsement in Bowling Green, one man in the crowd of more than 50 people asked whether she had ideas about health care.
Northup then embarked on a five-minute dissertation about the need for more flexibility in health insurance plans.
"Right now if you have a policy that's bound by all the requirements of coverage, it drives the cost up higher," she said, adding that people should be able to tailor their policies to include aspects like counseling or in-home nursing care.
But Northup still managed to sneak in a jab at Fletcher when she mentioned the need for a cap on medical malpractice lawsuit awards -- a politically touchy subject.
"Jeff and I both have a reputation for consensus building, engaging people in the legislature, building partnerships," she said. "That hasn't happened with this governor."
Northup, by her own admission, is a policy wonk. She consistently told reporters and supporters last week that the time will come to discuss key problems facing Kentucky, and Republican solutions to them.
"I look forward to talking about the issues," she told reporters in Owensboro.
"We'll have that kind of campaign if we win the primary."